Don’t Look Away

I had previously expressed my antipathy towards the Misano World Circuit as a boring track to photograph and a venue for me devoid of all la dolce vita that people effuse about. On a race weekend I go from a second rate tourist hotel, that resembles God’s waiting room, to the track and back each day (never once getting sand between my toes) before jumping on a plane to come home. Sometimes the racing is interesting but, in it’s mid season slot, it is the event that makes me feel that things can only get better from here for the remainder of the season. We are going to Laguna Seca in a few weeks after all.

This weekend, however, I think you would have had trouble to squeeze in any more intrigue if you tried. I was ready for throwing the towel in on the championship and putting all the chips I had left on red at lunchtime on Sunday. Just as well I didn’t.

FIM Superbike World Championship, Round 07, 21-23 June 2019, Misano, Italy, Jonathan Rea, Kawasaki

Before we talk about anything else we have to talk about that crash/save/recovery though.  

I was shooting on the inside of the track at the exit of turn six in the Superpole race and noticed that JR had gone missing. It wasn’t until I moved round a couple of corners that I noticed him running ahead of Melandri in fifth place. I just assumed that he had made a mistake, run wide or something, and rejoined. It wasn’t until I was back in the press office and someone said that it was probably the best ‘save’ they had ever seen – “what happened?” – ‘oh he tucked the front but just picked it up and kept going.’  In my head he had just done a ‘Marquez’, but it was way more than that. I didn’t actually see it until Sunday night when we were back in the hotel and, yes, indeed, I have never seen anything like it.

If we get to Doha in October and JR grabs his fifth title that moment could itself be more pivotal than what unfolded later in the day. It was just incredible. If you break it down, what happened reads like something from a circus act.

The rider falls over but holds onto the bike, does a barrel roll, still holding on, and as he comes out of the roll, picks the bike up, jumps on and rides away. Bravo!! Bring on the clowns!

It sounds ridiculous but that is exactly what happened.

Someone commented on the physical strength you would need to bear the weight of a 170kg Superbike on top of you and still be able to pick it up without a moment of hesitation. It reminded me of meeting Jonathan in the winter at home in Northern Ireland when he was doing repeated exercises pushing a steel sled, laden with weights, up and down the car park at his gym. A car park that that morning had been cleared of snow and ice. I would guess the pain and discomfort of that session evaporated in the face of five valuable championship points on Sunday morning. It also highlights an oft overlooked fact that all of the top motorcycle racers today are supremely fit, highly trained athletes.

FIM Superbike World Championship, Round 07, 21-23 June 2019, Misano, Italy, Weather

Saturday’s race proceedings were interrupted by heavy downpours of rain, accompanied by frequent electrical storms. Sunday was warm and sunny but it didn’t stop lightning striking twice. 

The Superpole race had actually seen Bautista dominating again and as I said, I had already skipped to the last chapter. In my mind he was going to do the same in race two, another 25 points, and I was working out in my head at what race he would clinch the title.

Hold your horses there GB. In a carbon copy of race two in Jerez, Bautista shot off into the lead in the first lap only to lose the front and go down at the start of the next. Like Jonathan’s moto gymnastics in the previous race I couldn’t believe it. It genuinely looked like a mistake but it was something that many riders commented about afterwards, that all weekend, in dry conditions, there was no predictable feeling with the tyres. AB19 was maybe just unlucky that he has suffered the same fate two weeks running but if it points to a deeper issue we could be in for a clichéd season of two halves.

FIM Superbike World Championship, Round 07, 21-23 June 2019, Misano, Italy, Toprak Razgatlioglu, Kawasaki

Bautista crashing out gave way to a three way Kawasaki battle between Toprak Razgatlioglu, Rea and Leon Haslam for the win. Haslam faded as the race went on, probably due to a very painful right hand, injured in a crash earlier in the weekend, and won out in a battle with Alex Lowes for third. Rea got the better of Razgatlioglu with four laps to go but the Turk mounted a challenge and treated us to an epic last lap battle with JR coming out on top. It meant that we had a Kawasaki lock out of the podium, the first time since Sugo 1993 when Kawasaki Muzzy team-mates Scott Russell and Aaron Slight sandwiched KRT wildcards Keiichi Kitagawa and Shoichi Tsukamoto to give Kawasaki the top four places. Significantly the podium from Sunday represented the KRT Suzuka 8Hr team for the prestigious endurance race at the end of July.

One thing I was pleased to see was that Saturday’s race one took place in the rain.  As the thunderstorms rolled through bringing periods of torrential rain the red flag came out twice, after the initial sighting lap and again after three racing laps.  I thought ‘here we go again’ and was waiting for the news that the race had been cancelled. However, once a couple of patches of standing water were cleared the race got back under way and, whilst it’s a bit miserable for me working in those conditions I was glad that racing went ahead.

The grip problems in the dry however may have been a large contributing factor in Michael van der Mark’s crash. Looking at slow motion footage he seems to have lost the rear at the apex of the corner, when the bike was most likely still off the throttle. To lose the rear in that situation is pretty unusual. It was a big get-off and it was that strange feeling of relief that comes over us in bike racing that he ‘only’ had a bang on the head and a few broken bones. I think it is a shame that it happened when it did as Michael seemed to have made a connection with the R1 and was fast again on the weekend. I think he would have been a good shout for another win.

With Donington and Laguna coming up in quick succession we won’t see him back on the bike before Portimao in September but a strong end to the season will hopefully set him up for 2020 when a new R1 will be available.

The rumour mill is beginning to get up to speed but I am not sure there is going to be much movement on the rider market. The top seats in Kawasaki and Ducati have two year bums on them and I don’t see much shifting in that regard. For me the interesting developments will be in the race machine updates. 

Kawasaki are still making noises that they will bring a new Ninja to the grid as a direct response to the performance gains of the Ducati Panigale V4R. I am not sure if they will bring a whole new ZX-10RR to the market or whether they will revise the current model using the homologation rules to develop a race inspired machine.  Yamaha are at a similar fork in the road. I have heard from a few sources that the 2020 race machine will have the same chassis as the existing one but will have a heavily revised engine and new bodywork shape. Conversely I also heard that in Japan there is a desire for a complete ground up re-design. We will have to wait and see.

Honda are the ones that are most intriguing. It would seem that the dream of a V4 Fireblade is just that. The new bike will have an in-line four cylinder power plant but talk coming out of Japan suggest that it will have the most powerful four cylinder 1000cc motorbike on the market. Mating that to a race winning chassis is where the real challenge lies but if anyone can solve that conundrum it surely has to be Honda and HRC. It’s a mouth watering prospect and as I have speculated before, 2020 may see a true renaissance in Superbike racing from a manufacturers point of view. 

With the thrills and spills we have seen over the last two or three races the championship is certainly losing the boring and predictable tag and it might be that those things will bring the public back on side to start a full revival of the series.

Words by Graeme Brown @geebeeimages

Photos by GeeBee Images @geebeeimages

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